Romeo, Romeo… our ballet companies love their Romeos. And Juliets. In particular, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s classic staging which opens not only The Royal Ballet’s 2021-22 season but, just 24 hours later, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s too. After all the lockdown and post-lockdown mixed bill pas de deux programmes, with couples rehearsing and dancing within their bubbles, it was a relief to see the full company able to reconvene for a full-length ballet once more.

Cesar Corrales (Romeo) and Francesca Hayward (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Premiered in 1965 with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the titles roles – although MacMillan had created the ballet on Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable – Romeo and Juliet has been an audience favourite ever since. Its charms are evident. MacMillan’s sensuous choreographies in his pas de deux are contrasted against the bustling, brawling streets and swashbuckling sword fights, creating the oppressive atmosphere of Renaissance Verona, home to the bitter feud between the Montague and Capulet families. Throw in the haughty grandeur of the Capulet ball, with a tune the whole world recognises, and you have a box office hit. 

This was the 511th performance by The Royal, with another 25 scheduled during the season. Many in the audience will have seen the 2019 film Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, directed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, deftly filleted to 90 minutes and spectacularly shot on location in Hungary. Seven of the main cast from that film featured in the same roles this opening night, including Francesca Hayward, who once again captivated as Juliet.

Francesca Hayward (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Slight of frame, Hayward is a very girlish Juliet. She’s a petulant teen, rebelling against her father, stamping her feet. But she’s a dreamer too, easily captivated by the Romeo of Cesar Corrales – her real life partner – and thrown into the turmoil of first love. She caresses the pillars of her balcony expectantly as Romeo flits between the shadows below. On opening night, the Balcony Duet didn’t really catch fire, a few lifts not quite clean, the sense of breathless excitement absent. But in Act 3, Hayward captured Juliet’s turmoil adroitly, switching from feisty rebellion, when Capulet forces her to accept Paris, to icy resignation. And in the tomb scene, she allowed herself to be flung around like a rag doll.

Cesar Corrales (Romeo) and Francesca Hayward (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Corrales, tall and broad-shouldered, was something of a one-dimensional Romeo. He played the lovesick puppy well and his dancing was muscular and athletic, but he missed some of the role’s nuances, particularly in the events leading to the death of Tybalt. He was outshone by Marcelino Sambé’s firecracker of a Mercutio, a cheeky chappie, flirtatious and with rapier sharpness. James Hay was an affable foil as Benvolio. 

Matthew Ball, a very fine Romeo himself, was a hot-headed Tybalt, easily riled by the Montague boys. He displayed dashing footwork and swordsmanship in equal measure and looked not unlike his uncle, Lord Capulet, played by Gary Avis, until recently a distinguished Tybalt. Christina Arestis never quite let rip in her grief at the end of Act 2. Bennet Gartside was a suitably gentle presence as Friar Laurence, Tomas Mock a restrained Paris.

Francesca Hayward (Juliet)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Koen Kessels conducted an urgent account of Prokofiev’s searing score, but the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House had a few mishaps, with cracked brass and, most noticeably, a car crash Mandolin Dance where mandolins (in the Side Stalls) and clarinets came awry. They’ll have plenty of chance to make amends during the long run.

***11